Jokes about the Jewish–Muslim love-hate relationship

Omid Djalili started his stand-up comedy career with "Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son" in 1996. Now a successful Hollywood actor, the British-Iranian entertainer talks to Julia Grosse about his role in "The Infidel", British humour and jokes about Muslims and Jews

By Julia Grosse

David Baddiel, director of "The Infidel", literally tailored the main figure on you. He said he came up with the story for the film because of your show.

Omid Djalili: David said there's nothing to work on because this character is 100 per cent you. I said that can't be. But he said: it is you, a second generation ethnic person in Britain who is not that clever, who loves football, who swears a lot. He saw me in my stand-up and had an image of me as the perfect lad who said "F*** you" all the time… I think even now he still thinks I am that character of his film!

How authentic is the role of Mahmud?

Djalili: It was very important that the character wasn't a second generation Brad Pitt. He had to be physically authentic, he had to be fat. I put on extra weight that I still haven't lost. Mahmud is an ignorant British Everyman because right now a British Everyman can be everyone, a Pakistani, a Jew, an Iranian, whatever.

Scene from
"A comedy of ethnic proportions": In "The Infidel", Mahmud Nasir finds out he was adopted and that he is really a Jew by birth

​​Mahmud is like a lot of second generation British Muslims who don't understand the old faith. They see it like being part of a tribe you have to defend, but they are not informed. Mahmud changes in the end and suddenly becomes more relaxed about his faith.

And it's a film about London as well. Do you believe in British multiculturalism?

Djalili: In London nobody is really surprised if there is an Asian family in a predominantly "white" neighbourhood. The British are tolerant in that respect, but that doesn't mean they accept, they only tolerate. That's not a true multicultural idea, but that's what it's like.

What is the message of "The Infidel"?

Djalili: The message is a very simple one: I think we look at the time of mankind's turbulent adolescence. We are not mature yet, there is still ignorance, there are still wars. We are in a way still teenagers, confused. One of the things we are still struggling with is religious unity: People still don't understand that if there is a God, it's only one, and that there is only one religion. That's the topic of the film: We are all one. Problems and differences are a man-made thing.

What are Muslim peoples' reactions watching your stand-up comedy show?

Djalili: People have expressed concerns about my jokes, that the jokes can be interpreted in a wrong way, but I don't want to offend. There are a lot of comedian colleagues who think they are not doing their job properly unless they offend.

image: Revolver Film
"An ignorant, British Everyman": Omid Djalili as Mahmud Nasir/Solly Shimshillewitz in "The Infidel"

​​Of course we have a different position her in the UK. And apart from that we are looking back on a long history of comedy. But still it's quite edgy to do Jewish jokes in Britain.

What was the British audience's reaction like?

Djalili: What was interesting was: Muslims and Jewish people loved it. It was the "white" people who thought, "Whoops, maybe we shouldn't be laughing about this." All the Jewish and Muslim press loved it. The "white" press thought it was too risky.

I heard that you had initial problems to get financial support for the film?

Djalili: Absolutely, the film was initially privately financed. I went to BBC films and spoke to their boss, who was a runner 12 years ago. I was like: What's the matter, why wouldn't you support us? He said: I just don't like the script, I don't think it's funny. It didn't make me smile.

You are British-Iranian. Why does migration and identity always play a role in your stand-up shows?

Djalili: I think it's because that's what I struggled with, in particular with the times of the Iranian revolution. It happened when I was 13, in 1979. It was in the news in Britain every day for about a year, and that really affected me.

But I am actually not a Muslim, I am a Bahai. Bahai is actually a really cool faith because the it aims for unity. But I was a weirdo to the Brits. I was the most unattractive boy in the class: I was from Iran, a country where they had a shah, where the Islamic revolution was taking place. This is why I became interested in culture, religion, migration, all those aspects that play a role for migrants.

image: Revolver Film
Migrant jokes on the set during filming: Mahmoud is trying to learn how to be Jewish

​​Is humour a good way to transport messages to the mainstream?

Djalili: If I want to make a point, humour is perfect because if people laugh they actually got the point, understood it. I was watching TV evangelism one day, with those rich famous preachers who just want money. They're like stand-up comedians now! They are using humour, like "You know there is this funny story about God", and people love it and feel more attracted to those guys!

There is this last scene of the film where the two heroes argue about that sensitive "Jewish nose" topic. Were there a lot of migrant jokes on the set during filming?

Djalili: That's a really good question, because yes, there were! But we ran out of them after a week! The reason why we have that ending is we wanted to show that the conflict continues, we are discussing that symbolic nose topic because we both, Muslims and Jews, are enjoying it at some point!

Does it bother you to always have to play the "funny Arab guy"?

Djalili: What irritates me: I get a call from my agent who says that NBC wants to do a show, and the idea is: A funny Muslim guy is being put together with a "white" guy and funny things happen. And I am like: Are you joking? What's the concept? The concept was clear here in this film, but especially Hollywood is keen to put Arab characters in their films but don't know what to do with them!

In the motion picture "Sex and the City II" you got to play the Arab hotel director…

Djalili: I didn't even know what the script was because it was so super secret, but that was fine. I arrived at the set and only knew I was going to play the hotel manager. They gave me the lines, we started filming and that's it. But that was absolutely fine, because I love "Sex and the City"!

Interview: Julia Grosse

© 2011

Editor: Lewis Gropp/